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Take a Bite Out of ‘¿Tacos or Tacos?’

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Taco trucks have become popular across the U.S.

Taco trucks — practically everywhere you look, there’s another one heading down the road, selling everything from crab cakes to cupcakes to actual tacos. The recent increase in popularity of mobile food has even spawned its own documentary.

At the recent Hill Country Film Festival, audiences had the chance to see a 15-minute film titled “¿Tacos or Tacos?” that was made by Robert Lemon, a  doctoral student at the University of Texas-Austin who has shown the film at several other film festivals.

(To watch a preview of the movie, click here.)

Though Lemon’s film deals with the taco scene in Austin, it touches on the state of what we are eating today across the country. The filmmaker answered several questions about the burgeoning taco truck scene in Texas and elsewhere.

Where did the idea for the movie originate?

I became interested in taco trucks while I was working as a community planner in Columbus, Ohio, in 2005. There were several community issues about the trucks, and in general, I found the trucks to be fascinating; especially as I had lived in Mexico the previous year. Ohio is probably the most stereotypical middle American place I’ve been, and to see these trucks moving in was unusual.

To what do you attribute the growth of taco trucks?

The trucks to Mexican immigrants and many Mexican Americans are practical places for Mexicans to find something familiar to them. The trucks themselves represent various culinary regions of Mexico, so there is something to be said about their diversity. So not all the trucks are representing the same places or the same types of foods, plus there is competition for quality and authenticity. For one, as immigration continues, the trucks will continue. On another note, food in Mexico is very popular in the informal economy of Mexico. Many Mexican’s turn to cooking in order to have something to sell. This idea is also in the United States. Many Mexicans who open a taco truck have never cooked before, but need a job and decide enter into taco making.

Is this a fad or something more permanent on our dining scene?

The more high-end food trucks that are not “traditional Mexican taco trucks” are probably here to stay. To what extent is the question. The new food truck scene is still relatively new and more people are trying their hand at it as the economy is slow. At the same time, I think street food is becoming more popular in the United States amongst non-Hispanics and won’t go anywhere. Right now there are more and more trucks popping up around the country … some of these trucks will dwindle out because of a weak concept, while others will probably fold as people grow tired of them. I think the trucks that are well managed and have a strong following will end up becoming fixtures in particular neighborhoods that celebrate street food culture.

What has been the response to the film?

The film has show in Sonoma, Calif.; Austin and Fredricksburg. One of the best screenings was in Sonoma where people were cheering at the end. Sonoma has similar issues with food trucks the community there could relate to. The Sonoma audience also asked some very astute questions about food and place and enjoyed the manner in which I subtitled the film in both Spanish and English. The screening at Cine Las Americas here in Austin, most people enjoyed the film, but I didn’t receive much feedback about its content. It is interesting that Austin audiences tend to want to know where the taco truck is and where “The Mighty Cone” is, because they want to eat both of the establishments. The Hill Country Film Festival had a very good Q&A session on some of the filmmaking aspects of the documentary short, and the audience thought the movie was well timed because it is a new issue that people haven’t necessarily looked at critically.

What kinds of foods do you like to eat from taco trucks?

The funny thing is, I’m not big on eating at food trucks. I’m mainly interested in the phenomenon and what it means culturally from a more critical perspective. For five years I would go to the trucks and talk to people but would never eat at them. Only recently, while shooting the movie, would I eat at the trucks. For the most part, all their foods are great when I do eat at them. I enjoy regular tacos de pastor or bistec from the Mexican taco trucks and pretty much all the diverse foods at the food trucks in South Austin. I love eating and trying all food, so I’m not picky … but as an academic, I’m more interested in food as place making. … So although I know most everyone’s menu, I haven’t tried everything. There are just too many trucks, and it is overwhelming. The funny thing is, most people think I critique or like to find out who has the best taco. The truth is I don’t care. I used to know all the trucks in Columbus, Ohio, and in Oakland, Calif. And I have seen trucks in so many other cities. It is impossible to try them all, however I’m interested in how the trucks are perceived by the communities they move into and how they are regulated by city.

For more about Robert Lemon, click here. No further screenings of “¿Tacos or Tacos?” have been scheduled at this point. If any are scheduled in the region, we will include it in our Upcoming Events.

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